Phil Sheridan: Memmel bouncing back and right to Beijing

Posted: June 21, 2008

The starry-eyed preteen gymnasts who filled the Wachovia Center told the story.

They shrieked for Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, the golden girls of American gymnastics.

They roared for Chellsie Memmel.

Johnson and Liukin brought the star power to the Olympic trials. All Memmel did was deliver stunning routines that should make her the third lock for the U.S. team that will contend for gold medals in Beijing in August.

Not bad for a gymnast whose time was supposed to have come and gone, who might have been best remembered for a televised humiliation that never should have happened.

It was July 2004. Rebounding from a broken foot, Memmel finished fourth at the Olympic trials and was considered a favorite to make the team that would represent the United States in Athens.

Someone had decided it would be a good idea to turn the selection of the team into a kind of reality show. So it was broadcast live on national TV when Memmel was passed over in favor of vault specialists Mohini Bhardwaj and Annia Hatch.

"I think that's one of the worst ways you can announce a team, on live TV," said Memmel, who was chosen as an alternate on that team. "It was hard. I had done everything I could to make that team. Making alternate was great, given the [injury] situation, but it was still hard."

Memmel came back the next year to win the all-around gold medal at the world championships.

Then came the shoulder injury, suffered during the 2006 world championships.

Memmel had reconstructive surgery in November. Within two weeks, her arm still in a sling, she snuck onto a trampoline.

That's one way to bounce back.

"I was just doing simple backflips and front tucks," Memmel said. "I wouldn't have put myself in any kind of danger. I knew my limits. I just had to flip around and be a gymnast for a little bit."

The injury cost Memmel a chance to be on the 2007 U.S. team that won gold at the world championships - a team featuring the elegant Liukin and the fiery Johnson, the next wave of stars in this most unforgiving of sports.

While Team USA was in Stuttgart, Germany, Memmel was getting back into shape at M&M Gymnastics, the gym her father, Andy, operates in West Allis, Wis.

"We brought a computer into the gym and watched [the championship meet] online," the softspoken Andy Memmel said. "It wasn't really hard for her. It was more exciting. She wasn't part of it, but she knew she could be part of it."

It was going to be a long road back.

"But if you feel like you've fallen behind," Andy Memmel said, "you're done."

So the Memmels came up with a private timetable to get Chellsie back to where she believed she should have been - the U.S. Olympic team.

"We believed we would get a huge reward for sticking to our plan," Andy Memmel said.

And then there were the literal rewards. Andy Memmel gives his younger students smiley-face stickers when they perform well. Chellsie let it be known that she'd like some stickers, too. She now has a couple of notebooks filled with smiling faces alongside notations to explain how she earned each one.

"It's like a training journal," she said.

A couple of months ago, the Memmels found out that their timetable didn't exactly line up with Martha Karolyi's timetable. In her typically direct way, the U.S. team coordinator told Chellsie it was time to step it up if she expected to be in the mix for Beijing.

"That's where it was," Memmel said. "I did have to step it up. It was a great wake-up call."

The United States has perhaps its deepest group of female gymnasts ever. Liukin and Johnson are rightfully the stars. But Samantha Peszek, Jana Bieger, Ivana Hong, Alicia Sacramone, Bridget Sloan and Shayla Worley would be a pretty strong team even without the golden girls.

Memmel was going to have to vault past all of them.

That's just what she's doing. At the national championships in Boston, Memmel finished third all-around, behind Johnson and Liukin. She earned a couple of pages worth of smiley faces, but even better was the smile on Karolyi's face. The exacting coordinator called Memmel the most pleasant surprise of the meet.

Last night, Memmel opened with a stellar routine on the uneven bars and led the competition after a strong performance on the balance beam. Going into tomorrow's final, she is third overall, behind Johnson and Liukin.

Memmel can lock up a spot on the team by finishing first or second tomorrow. Otherwise, she will have to go back to the Karolyi ranch, the scene of her 2004 disappointment. This time, there won't be any TV cameras - good news for this year's near-misses.

Memmel won't be one of them. She's going to Beijing.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan

at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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